Northern Ireland’s schools will reopen for staff from next week ahead of full service resuming at the end of the month.
Education Minister Peter Weir said he wants all to return to “more normal patterns of operation and attendance from the week beginning 31 August”.
Revised New School Day guidance will be published next week setting out an updated approach to the full reopening of schools rather than a phased approach.
The Minister also confirmed that schools will reopen for staff from next week and for key groups of pupils from August 24.
The Minister said: “My key objective has always been for all pupils to return full-time to school as soon as possible, when it is safe to do so. One of my primary concerns is the long term educational impact on children and young people as a result of the prolonged disruption of face-to-face teaching.
“I am also conscious that many young people are worried about completing their current programmes of study and the impact this may have on their futures.
“I previously said that if circumstances allowed I would like to see this happen without delay.
“I am, therefore, pleased to announce today that I have agreed with my Executive colleagues that, taking account of the scientific and medical evidence, it is now appropriate for all pupils to return to school during the week commencing 31 August.
“This return will be on a full-time basis of five days a week for every pupil, including those who attend Special Schools.”
Revised guidance will outline the key measures that will be put in place to ensure the safety of all pupils and staff.
The Minister, continued: “Today represents another step forward for our education settings.
“However, we are still operating in a pandemic and everyone has a vital role to play in ensuring that hygiene and public health measures are adhered to by all to allow our children and young people a safe return to education.
“The revised guidance will allow schools to operate on a basis where the requirement for strict social distancing between pupils in school and on dedicated home to school transport is maintained where possible, while acknowledging that in some circumstances this is not practical. In those circumstances a range of key risk mitigations will be implemented.
“Protective bubbles will be used as a key measure in helping to limit the number of different interactions between groups. Enhanced hygiene and cleaning measures remain vital.”
The Minister said that effective processes for managing local outbreaks, including the Public Health Agency’s test, trace, protect programme, are essential measures to allow a full reopening of schools.
Mr Weir added: “I am confident that our school leaders and staff will rise to the challenge and ensure all pupils can return safely to education full-time but we cannot be complacent.
“Covid-19 is still in our communities and we need parents, pupils and wider society to be vigilant and act responsibly within the overarching public health guidelines. Parents if your children have symptoms please keep them at home and arrange a test.”
The guidance will continue to be reviewed in response to any changes in the public health position.